«Major points: Recent data and research supports the importance of natural climate variability and calls into question the conclusion that humans are ...»
By contrast, climate change is better characterized as a ‘wicked’ problem, which is a complex tangle characterized by multiple problem definitions, the methods of understanding are open to contention, and 'unknown unknowns' suggest chronic conditions of ignorance and lack of capacity to imagine future eventualities of both the problem and the proposed solutions. The complex web of causality may result in surprising unintended consequences to attempted solutions that generate new vulnerabilities or exacerbate the original harm. Further, the wickedness of the climate change problem makes if difficult to identify points of irrefutable failure in either the science or the policies.
As another pair of ‘wrong trousers,’ the enshrinement of the Precautionary Principle into the UNFCCC Treaty represents a mismatch between the problem and the proposed solution. The Precautionary Principle works fine for tame problems, but introduces many potentially undesirable consequences when applied to a wicked problem. The Precautionary Principle enjoins us to do our utmost to avoid the possibility of catastrophe or ruin, and is arguably a decisive consideration for ruin problems.23 However, arguments that we face the possibility of ruin in the 21st century from climate change are very weak and not supported by the evidence that we have.
Overreaction to a possible catastrophic threat may cause more harm than benefits and introduce new systemic risks, which are difficult to foresee for a wicked problem. The known risks to human well-being associated with constraining fossil fuels may be worse than the eventual risks from climate change, and there are undoubtedly some risks that we currently don’t foresee.
The wickedness of the climate change problem is further manifested in the regional variability of the risks. Balancing the risks of climate change and the policy response is very difficult across different regions and countries that face varying risks from climate change, energy poverty and threats to economic development. Some regions may actually benefit from a warmer climate. Regional perceptions of a preferred climate or ‘dangerous’ climate change depend on societal values and vulnerability/resilience, which vary regionally and culturally. Climate has always changed, independently of human activity, so 22 Prins and Rayner, 2007. The wrong trousers: radically rethinking climate policy http://eureka.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/66/ 23 Taleb, N et al. 2014: The precautionary principle. Extreme Risk Initiative NYU http://arxiv.org/pdf/1410.5787.pdf climate change is nothing new; there is no prima facie reason for thinking the climate of the past or present is better than the future. Further, our current preferences for avoiding a particular climate of the future fail to account for human creativity and ingenuity in creating new technologies and social and political structures that will condition our perceptions and the consequences of climate change.
Expanding the policy options for responding to climate change
There is reason to be concerned about climate change, and humans are influencing climate in the direction of warming. However, effectively responding to the possible threats from a warmer climate is made very difficult by the deep uncertainties surrounding the risks both from the problem and the proposed solutions. The climate change problem is characterized by deep uncertainties in the trajectory of 21st century climate change, long timescales of the risk over which there is much uncertainty about societal vulnerabilities and capacities to respond, and disagreement among experts regarding the efficacy of different strategies and the value of alternative outcomes.
The complexity and wickedness of the climate change problem argues against a ‘command and control’ solution based on some guessed-at optimal policy. Attempting to deal with a wicked problem using strategies designed for tame problems can result in a ‘cure’ that is worse than the original ‘disease.’ Arguably the biggest problem with climate policy has been an overly narrow set of narratives and policy options. Expanding the frameworks for thinking about climate policy and its relation to other societal problems can lead to developing a range of more tractable policy options that would provide policy makers with a wider choice of options in addressing the risks from climate change.
Precautionary Principle – more sorry than safe?
The UNFCCC has formulated the climate change problem and solution as irreducibly global in context of the Precautionary Principle, with the solution focused on global reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.
Individual countries are submitting to the UNFCCC their INDCs. The U.S. INDC has a goal of reducing emissions by 28% below 2005 levels by 2025. Apart from considerations of feasibility and cost, it has been estimated24 using the EPA MAGICC model that this commitment will prevent 0.03oC in warming by
2100. When combined with commitments from other nations, only a small fraction of the projected future warming will be ameliorated by these commitments. If climate models are indeed running too hot, then the amount of warming prevented would be even smaller. Even if emissions immediately went to zero and the projections of climate models are to be believed, the impact on the climate would not be noticeable until the 2nd half of the 21st century. It is not clear exactly what the INDC commitments are expected to accomplish.
The UNFCCC policies and the Precautionary Principle have brought us to a point between a rock and hard place, whereby the proposed policy with its extensive costs and questions of feasibility are inadequate for making a meaningful dent in slowing down the expected warming. And the real societal consequences of climate change and extreme weather events (whether caused by humans or natural variability) remain largely unaddressed.
Given that the policies proposed under the imprimatur of the Precautionary Principe are very costly, politically contentious and would not change the climate in any meaningful way, we should consider other decision making frameworks and risk management approaches for addressing climate change.
24 http://www.cato.org/blog/002degc-temperature-rise-averted-vital-number-missing-epas-numbers-fact-sheet Decision making strategies under deep uncertainty Rather than negotiating an optimal policy based on a negotiated scientific consensus, robust and flexible policy strategies can be designed that account for uncertainty, ignorance and dissent. Robust strategies formally consider uncertainty, whereby decision makers seek to reduce the range of possible scenarios over which the strategy performs poorly. Flexible strategies are adaptive, and can be quickly adjusted to advancing scientific insights and new conditions that arise.
Under conditions of deep uncertainty, the following options are available to frame decision making:25
• Do nothing, or delay in order to gather more information
• Enlarge the knowledge base for decisions through broader perspectives
• Invoke the Precautionary Principle
• Adaptive management
• Build a resilient and anti-fragile society Each of these strategies incorporates information about uncertainty into the decision making process, albeit in different ways. The politics surrounding the climate policy debate is framed as a choice between delaying a policy response until uncertainties are reduced versus invoking the Precautionary Principle aimed at emission stabilization targets determined largely by climate models.
The other decision framework options are receiving increasing attention, and justification for addressing the climate change problem are transitioning away from precaution to a risk management approach justified by the economics of preventing losses from climate change. The World Bank has a recent paper entitled Investment decision making under deep uncertainty – application to climate change26 that summarizes existing decision-making methodologies that are able to deal with the deep uncertainty associated with climate change: cost-benefit analysis under uncertainty, cost-benefit analysis with real options, robust decision making, and Climate Informed Decision Analysis.
As an alternative to the Precautionary Principle, The Breakthrough Institute has proposed Climate Pragmatism,27 a pluralistic approach based on innovation, resilience and no regrets. This pragmatic strategy centers on efforts to accelerate energy innovation, build resilience to extreme weather, and pursue no regrets pollution reduction measures. Each of these three efforts has justifications independent of their benefits for climate mitigation and adaptation. Further, this framework does not depend on any agreement about climate science or the risks posed by uncontrolled greenhouse gases.
Resilience and anti-fragility
The threats from climate change (whether natural or human caused) are fundamentally regional, associated not only with regional changes to the weather/climate, but with local vulnerabilities and cultural values and perceptions. In the least developed countries, energy poverty and survivability is of overwhelming concern, where there are severe challenges to meeting basic needs and their idea of clean green energy is something other than burning dung inside their dwelling for cooking and heating. In many less developed countries, particularly in South Asia, an overwhelming concern is vulnerability to extreme weather events such as floods and hurricanes that can set back the local economies for a generation. In the developed world, countries are less vulnerable to climate change and extreme weather events and have the 25 Bammer, G and M Smithson 2008: Uncertainty and Risk: Multidisciplinary Perspectives. Taylor & Francis, 382 pp.
26 http://elibrary.worldbank.org/content/workingpaper/10.1596/1813-9450-6193 27 http://thebreakthrough.org/blog/Climate_Pragmatism_web.pdf luxury of experimenting with new ideas: entrepreneurs want not only to make money but also to strive for greatness and transform the infrastructure for society.
Resilience is the ability to ‘bounce back’ from unexpected shocks. The difference in impact and recovery from Hurricane Sandy striking New York City in 2012 versus the impact of Tropical Cyclone Nargis striking Myanmar in 200828 reflects very different vulnerabilities and capacities for bouncing back.
Nassim Taleb’s concept of antifragility,29 whereby you learn and grow from adversity. suggests strategies of economic development, reducing the downside from volatility, developing a range of options, tinkering with small experiments, and developing and testing transformative ideas.
A regional focus on addressing the risks of climate change allows for a range of bottom-up strategies to be integrated with other societal challenges, including overpopulation, environmental degradation, poorly planned land-use and over-exploitation of natural resources. Some of these problems can be carved out as tame problems, where everyone can agree on both the problem and the solution, in the context of traditional risk management approaches. And near-term benefits to the region can be realized in terms of reduced vulnerability to a broad range of threats, improved resource management, and improved environmental quality.
A focus on policies that support resilience and anti-fragility avoids the uncertainties of attributing climate change to humans versus nature and avoids the hubris of thinking we know what the future climate holds.
The questions then become ‘How much resilience can we afford?’ and ‘How can we best promote the development of transformative ideas and technologies?’
There is reason to be concerned about climate change. However, effectively responding to the possible threats from a warmer climate is made very difficult by the deep uncertainties surrounding the risks both from the problem and the proposed solutions. Uncertainty is a two edged sword; future climate outcomes might be better or worse than currently believed. However, recent research has sharpened the blade of the sword in the direction of less impact from human-caused climate change and greater political and economic infeasibility of meaningful reductions in CO2 emissions.
Therefore, I am concerned that the proposed U.S. INDC to address the perceived problems of climate change will do essentially nothing to change the climate, and the U.S. and other nations will remain vulnerable to climate surprises and extreme weather events.
The framing of the climate change problem by the UNFCCC/IPCC and the early articulation of a preferred policy option has marginalized research on broader issues surrounding climate variability and change and stifled the development of a broader range of policy options.
The wickedness of the climate change problem provides much scope for disagreement among reasonable and intelligent people. Arguably the biggest problem with climate policy has been an overly narrow set of narratives and policy options. Expanding the frameworks for thinking about climate policy and its relation to other societal problems can lead to developing a range of more tractable policy options that would provide policy makers with a wider choice of options in addressing the risks from climate change.
28 Webster, PJ 2008 Myanmar’s Deadly Daffodil. Nature Geoscience, http://webster.eas.gatech.edu/Papers/Webster2008c.pdf 29 Taleb, N 2012 Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. Random House.
Short Biography Judith Curry Professor, School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Georgia Institute of Technology Atlanta, GA 30332-0349 email@example.com Dr. Judith Curry is Professor and former Chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology and President of Climate Forecast Applications Network (CFAN). Dr.
Curry received a Ph.D. in atmospheric science from the University of Chicago in 1982. Prior to joining the faculty at Georgia Tech, she held faculty positions at the University of Colorado, Penn State University and Purdue University. Dr. Curry’s research interests span a variety of topics in climate;